Since my appointment as President of the Rugby Football League was announced more than a year ago, you can probably guess the question that’s cropped up the most: why?
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Obviously, I’m best-known as a footballer. I’m not from Wigan or Wakefield. What have I got to do with Rugby League?
This has been a good week for me to reflect on that, and to explain why I was so honoured to take up the offer.
On Saturday night, I’ll be hosting the RFL President’s Ball in Leeds.
I’m told this is always a wonderful, uplifting occasion.
The main purpose is to raise funds for the Rugby League Benevolent Fund, a charity that supports Rugby League people in their darkest hour – the Fund provides lifetime support to all players, be they amateur or professional, when they suffer life-changing injuries and, just as importantly, is on hand to help and advise their families.
When tragedy strikes, the Fund also supports the families of players who have died playing the game they love.
One of the RL Benevolent Fund’s most important relationships is with Rugby League Cares, the independent charity who do such a terrific job delivering welfare and post-playing career services to the game’s most important stakeholders.
I urge everyone to find out more about players who combine this tough sport with learning and development, up to and including degree courses. It defies stereotypes.
And it’s through RL Cares that Rugby League players access the services of Sporting Chance, the mental health charity I founded almost two decades ago.
As a result of my own experiences, battling addiction during my playing career, I realised there were a lot of sports people out there who needed help. Sporting Chance provides everything from residential services, counselling and mentoring to education and training.
We started in football, but since we first opened up to Rugby League in 2011 with a talk at Warrington Wolves, we’ve found it a brilliant sport to work with whether visiting Hull KR, Hull FC, Leeds Rhinos or any of the many great clubs.
We’ve had more than 500 Rugby League people using our services since then, and the support the game has provided from the centre – whether the Rugby Football League, or Rugby League Cares, especially through people like Emma Rosewarne, their Welfare Officer – has been outstanding.
We were welcomed in to get involved with education – we deliver talks to the senior squads of the Super League clubs every year.
That education is our front door. Then it’s up to the players to come to us if they need us. RL Cares supports them, and steers them in our direction.
I might not speak with the same accent as the majority of the Rugby League players, but I identify with them. (And by the way there are some outstanding southern players and clubs - it’s a myth you have to be northern to play or watch this sport!).
The players are working-class boys – I’m generalising a bit, but they’re authentic and tough.
A lot of them have had trauma, addiction - issues that affect their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. They learn that it’s OK to cry. It’s beautiful to see them reborn.
That’s why when I’m asked about Rugby League, I will sing its praises – and I hope that’s why I’ve been a decent fit as President. And I’m focused on the season ahead.
When I was at Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final, or when I’m up here for the President’s Ball – it’s a genuine relationship I have with the sport through the players I respect and admire.
You’ve seen the respect Rugby League players have from other sports with the reaction there’s been since it was announced before Christmas that Rob Burrow had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
And the way Rugby League people have rallied around Rob, with all the fund-raising and the sell-out for this game between Leeds and Bradford at the weekend, is another example of why as a sport, it has so much to admire.
That’s why I’m delighted and honoured to be up in Leeds this weekend for the President’s Ball, and why I’m looking forward to doing all I can in the next six months of my Presidency, before I hand on to Clare Balding in the summer. Thanks for having me!